BEACH HOLIDAYS IN KENYA SOME PLACES STILL GOT IT
There are constant murmurs from within Kenyas tourism fraternity, and from the outside too, that in particular the beach resorts along the coast line have gone stale and tired and need some fresh impetus, fresh ideas, fresh investments, renewed focus and perhaps a new national vision and strategy for this important market segment.
A recent visit to Mombasa and resorts both north and south of the city, confirmed that indeed much can and much should if not must be done. Over the past years several resorts closed, notably the Alliance Hotels resorts of Jadini Beach, Africana Sea Lodge and Safari Beach, perhaps there for the owners own fault to overextend in other ventures and for thinking they could do better themselves what a respected professional had taken two plus decades to build for them. Wrong move mates and as the found out at their expense, there is hell to pay for a professional so scorned. Others suffered fire damage but never re-opened as the Two Fishes and yet others, most I visited, show a less than desirable state of repairs and to my surprise still offer literally the same menus and in house entertainment as they did 20 years ago when I left Mombasa for Uganda.
The Swahili Beach Resort opened just before Christmas last year, something at the time reported here, and when visiting two weeks ago showed the potential it has but also revealed the challenges to get into the market and get established as a new and upcoming resort.
But that said, my Kenyan colleagues themselves know only too well what and where improvements are needed, there are exceptions to the general trend. My visit to two leading resorts, the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and Spa and the Leopard Beach Resort and Spa, revealed some amazing improvements since my last visits many years ago. The Sarova Whitesands clearly has invested in their staff, managed to change their mindset and topped it with a vastly improved food quality, evidence that it can be done and repaid by during my days of stay full house at the height of the low season. That not enough, they are spending over 20 million US Dollars to upgrade their room product, with all seafront rooms ready by this years Christmas season and the rest to be tackled next year. Their rates may well go up by anywhere between 20 to 25 percent as a result for the new rooms, but that is money I personally would gladly spend, having seen the sample rooms and Kenya as a destination will benefit from having a top class resort just half an hour from the international airport, which can host large events and conferences and meet international standards as seen in destinations competing most intensely with Kenya to get tourists to their beaches. The other resort I stayed was the Leopard Beach Resort and Spa, which while closed for their annual refurbishment and overhaul took me in nevertheless. There the sparkle too showed of innovative management and a conscious decision to invest in their product year after year, rather closing for two months than going the way of the competition to stay open during the low season, often earn pathetic rates Not applicable at the Whitesands I should point out and then face the next high season looking tired and feeling tired.
Here are my impressions about my visit in detail with more to come on my visit to Kenya, covering a splendid safari to Tsavo Easts Satao Camp and then to the Sarova Taita Hills and Sarova Salt Lick lodges, from where I went to explore the Kenyan World War 1 battlefields, about which a major feature article is in the making.
Met at the airport, the Sarova Whitesands airport representative was instantly at hand, offered an iced towel and a cold drink and then I was whisked into a minivan for my half hour drive to the famous Bamburi beach north of the island of Mombasa, home to the Sarova Whitesands Resort and Spa.
My arrival was free of bureaucracy, all relevant details from my booking readily at hand and once the passport was copied a check in slip was produced, signed while sipping some refreshing chilled Karkadel juice and then, hey presto, I was whisked to the room. Here seafront is of course the recommended option, where from ground floor to the second floor the vista extends over the Indian Ocean, making for spectacular sunrises and the never ending sound of the surf, at high tide nearer and at low tide further out towards the reef. And for those who want some true luxury, any of the resorts 8 suites offer some extraordinary added value for a couple on a honeymoon or coming for a romantic getaway, while rooms with connecting doors are best suited for families with children of course.
The Sarova Whitesands sits on 23 acres and is the largest resort both north and south of Mombasa with 338 suites and rooms, conference facilities with several venues, five swimming pools including one with water slides and extensive gardens where on full house up to 700 guests still do not get the impression of the resort being really crowded. The resort, inspite of the low season when I visited, was fully booked on the days I stayed there, testament to its popularity amongst guests, many of them repeat visitors from upcountry and the countries in the region. And I was happy to note, there was equal treatment for Kenyans and East Africans everywhere I looked in the resort, with the attitude of advantage muzungu wagenis simply not true at the Whitesands where all guests are treated with the same courtesy and smiles and attention.
Sports facilities like tennis or basketball are available through the hotels animation team while an in-house contractor, an old acquaintance for that matter from my days at the coast, arranges for fun time with jet skies, for deep sea fishing, glass bottom boat trips to the reef, windsurfing and sailing. And diving too is available from a PADI certified centre at the Whitesands, which offers a free trial dive for those interested in one of the resorts pools.
What has been described as the longest beach access of any beach resort in Kenya, the blue waters of the Indian Ocean always invite for a quick dip and the white sandy beach, cleaned up daily of the inevitable seaweed whenever the tide goes out, is a perfect place for a stroll, a morning run or a walk at low tide towards the distant reef, which reveals an amazing diversity of fish and marine life. Spectacular sunrises await the early birds who take the trouble to get up at this hour as dawn gives way to a rapid sunrise and the kids just love the camel rides along the beach, riding the desert ship in the sand by the sea.
But the pride and joy of this family friendly resort is undoubtedly the animation and entertainment team of 23 staff under the guidance of Nick Ladu, who bring the days to life from morning till late at night. While during the day much of their activities centre around the kids, adults too are not shortchanged with a range of fun sports and animated events guests can participate in for free, while in the evening a variety of performances, cabarets and bands are on the programme to keep the tourists both engaged as well as entertained. Also available are regular team building exercises for in house guests and the Ozone Activities tailored around the needs of kids from 4 12 years old, capably taken off the hands of their parents, able to enjoy meeting age mates while mom and dad frolic in the sand and can enjoy that crucial one on one time.
In the evening, the sounds of music drift across the resort, with a different live band every day playing the guests favourite tunes, inviting them to swing around the dance floor before then following the action down to the beach side where the Cocos Beach Bar is the daily venue for evening performances and entertainment.
Moving on to food, one of the most important issues when one first selects a holiday destination and then a suitable resort as good cuisine is at the very core of a successful vacation. Most guests are booked on half board, i.e. having their breakfast and dinner included in their arrangements and in the evening they can eat their way through an extensive buffet display, which leaves really nothing to be desired. Yet, an almost separate on the house meal is offered every afternoon at the Cocos Beach Bar where tea and coffee, sandwiches and cake are offered with compliments of the house, while the fancied and much in demand freshly made pancakes and waffles are available for a mere 100 Kenya Shillings, delighting the palate of kids and adults alike. It is also a social meeting place for guests to get acquainted with each other and the entertainment team is present too with fun activities like quizzes or random number pickings, where the lucky winners always walk off with a smile on the face and a round of applause there are no sore losers at the Whitesands as the mood here is definitely not one for keeping or developing grudges.
Dinner at the Pavillion ranges from a wide selection of salads over soups to conventional starters, a daily choice of several main courses and grills and those quintessential deserts, one expects to end a meal with while on a holiday. Add a cheese board for good measure, and coffee or tea and let the indulgence begin a fully equipped and staffed gym as well as a unique weight loss herbal massage treatment at the Tulia Spa can take care of a few extra calories, especially when they are packaged so attractively that the scent and sights of food draws everyone to see and enjoy the eye candies the Whitesands acclaimed chefs conjure up every day. And in a novel development for Kenyas coastal resorts, the Whitesands actually offers a 24 hour dining option at their Minazi Café and Lounge, which remains open around the clock for the late night arrivals still feeling peckish or the early departures needing some breakfast before heading out on safari or to the airport for their flight home. So coming home at 3 a.m. from a night out of visiting Mombasas exciting nightlife spots, guests can be sure there is a light meal available before heading to the room for a few hours sleep until another day dawns and the cycle of activities, sun and fun in the sand unfolds around the resort again.
The fully equipped Tulia Gym is available to adult guests for free, and at the Tulia Spa individual and couples treatment available at a reasonable cost, making it basically unnecessary to even leave the resort during ones stay, considering that every human need is taken care of here, were it not for a range of external attractions Mombasa has to offer. The themed buffet dinners included in the holiday package can be upgraded to a romantic candlelight dinner by the sea at the Lido Seafood Grill, which serves some absolutely delicious interpretations of prawns, lobster, crab and ocean fish dishes but for those wanting to try out something else during their stay, some recommended options are available.
The Tamarind Restaurant is my personal winner for the past 3 + decades, as is he Tamarind Dhow, where a set seafood menu meat is available on request followed by dance tunes from the onboard band makes the time fly by while cruising on the Tudor creek which separates Mombasa island from the northern coastline. La Marina and The Moorings at Mtwapa creek are similarly popular with visitors and bookings are highly recommended when wanting to go out. The same is the case for the highly recommended Son et Lumiere Show which starts at sunset with a cruise on Tudor creek and then culminates in a dinner at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient Fort Jesus.
The nearby award winning Haller Park, a core area of over 200 hectares of rehabilitated quarry land with a further 400 hectares which is part of the nearby Forest Trails, offers walking and cycling (at Forest Trails only) options while offering the close up sights of wildlife, a reptile centre and twice a day the feeding of giraffes and hippos.
Waterbuck are grazing often only feet away not even looking up when visitors pass and pose with them at their side for pictures. At a cost of 400 KShs per person entry fee, it is money well spent and families with kids can simply not offer their children a better introduction to bird life over 230 species are found at the Haller Park and wildlife, settled here as a result of over 35 years of conservation and rehabilitation efforts, which transformed a barren moonscape into a forest and wildlife sanctuary of global acclaim.
The Whitesands has to be a resort of choice for families, couples and solo travelers seeking to have a good time and get value for money and especially honeymoon packages are popular with visitors from across the region, welcomed as guests and bid Kwaheri Ya Kuonana as friends when they leave. With an ongoing investment of over 20 million US Dollars to upgrade the resorts entire room portfolio to truly luxurious 5 star standards, the Whitesands comes highly recommended and has to be the in place for anyone wanting to stay north of Mombasa and nearer to the city.
(Partial view of a sample what the newly upgraded rooms will look like)
Across the Likoni channel by ferry from the island of Mombasa is what is generally referred to as South Coast, though that particular description mostly fits for the resorts along the world famous Diani Beach, a 35 kilometres south of Mombasa located stretch of white sandy beaches only occasionally separated from the next equally endless expanse by the huge coral rock outcrops. Here the Chui is located, another highly recommended option, otherwise known as the Leopard Beach Resort and Spa the South Coast equivalent to the Whitesands and yet quite different in style and location.
The Chui as the resort is fondly called by their staff and the guests, sits elevated on the coral rocks above the Indian Ocean shores and presently offers 150 rooms, suites, Chui cottages and beach side villas, catering for every budget. A further 28 2 and 3 bedroom villas are also being constructed nearer to the perimeter of the resorts 28 acres of land, adjoining to the main resort road from Ukunda, which when complete later this year will add another 75 rooms to the resort and help to meet the ever growing demand for quality holidays in Kenya.
Here, as at the Whitesands some 50 kilometres and a channel crossing apart, the addition of the word Spa already indicates that attention to a guests well being and care features high in the resorts philosophy of service. Seeing the Uzuri Spa, its dedicated separate pool area and the tell tale signs that kids are not permitted in this oasis of peace, tranquility, rest and recreation, makes it abundantly clear why the treatment rooms and facilities are constantly in demand and prior bookings are a must. It is no wonder therefore that the Chuis award cabinet has swollen with prizes and recognitions from both within Kenya and overseas, as the resort has been voted repeatedly in successive years as Kenyas best beach property at the south coast by readers of East Africa leading travel and lifestyle magazines and by the World Travel Awards as Kenyas leading resort in 2010 and 2011.
Fine dining, the resort is home to one of Kenyas few Chaine de Rotisseurs recognized restaurants, the The Chui Grill, is one of the hallmarks of the resorts hospitality, and weekly BBQs and beach side dinners, buffet breakfasts and dinners at the main Horizon Restaurant or al fresco lunches at the Coco Beach Mchana are just a few choices guests can make, with the addition of an Italian specialty restaurant the Pasta n Pizza Tomati, a pool side bistro and the Tutti Frutti ice cream parlour. Marios Bar, which could have come straight from a Hollywood movie and the open air Marcos Bar give enough clues that the initial owners of the hotel came from Italy and this pedigree continues to stand the hotel well. In fact, though under different ownership for the last decade, the resort has kept the tradition of being an example of superior hospitality with for instance a wine list of 68 choices from affordable to excellent, coming from South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Australia, Italy and California and the pedigree French Champagnes not missing either.
The accommodation matches the food and drink experience after multiple renovations, upgrades and refurbishments, which incidentally are a yearly event every May and June, keeping the sparkle on and making the Chui look as new all the time, a shining example in the midst of other and often rather tired looking resorts along this stretch of beach.
One truly tropical feature, in both resorts, are the extensive and well manicured lawns and gardens, showing off tropical flowers, shrubs and trees and the amazing variety of palms found along the Kenya coast. The vervet monkeys at the Whitesands however are however outdone by the Leopard Beachs resident group of black and white colobus monkeys, primates for that matter, which sit on roofs, trees and mind their own business, rarely tampering with food or drink unlike their more curious cousins at the north coast.
The nearby Jadini Forest, or rather the protected remnants of it today, is home to hundreds of colobus and the local Colobus Conservation trust fund is rightly proud to show off what they have accomplished so far to visitors taking a half day or longer to visit the forest and the centre. In fact rope bridges were established across the increasingly busy Diani beach road to prevent the primates falling victim to speeding cars and else to avoid crossing the road on power lines, which has in the past led to the loss of several colobus not daring to face the cars and then falling foul of electricity wires. Other day outings can be done to the nearby 18 hole par 72 championship golf course which is just minutes walk from the resort, or else a trip to the Kisite Marine National Park where an al fresco lunch is served on Wasini Island. The Shimba Hills National Park, managed by Kenya Wildlife Service, is also just an hours drive away and the distinctly cooler climate up in the hills makes for a nice change from the tropical heat on the beaches.
Here at the Chui as at the north coast, there is really little reason for guests to venture out in search of dining options but when they do, what comes highly recommended are The Sands at Nomads and Ali Barbours Fourty Thieves located in a cave near the beach not too far from the resort.
Does one even have to mention the abundance of water sports and animation activities available throughout the day from the Chui probably not as the available choices cater for literally all tastes and interest and the kids, again of course, are taken off their parents hands for the day, kept busy on their own with suitable and safe activities.
Kenyas other attractions, the game parks and private game sanctuaries, just a few hours drive from either the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and Spa or the Leopard Beach Resort and Spa, aka Chui, offer various additional holiday options, from staying under canvas at the Satao Camp in Tsavo East or an hour further on at the Sarova Taita Hills Lodge or sister property Sarova Salt Lick Lodge, the first build in the style of a German fortress the area is dotted with World War 1 battlefields and locations or the contemporary style tree hotel on stilts, as Sarova Salt Lick Lodge presents itself. Two or three day safaris can be combined with a beach vacation and the guest relations staff at the Chui and the Whitesands both will be more than happy to organize a bit of a safari experience, be it for one, two or more nights, game drives included.
No Kenya holiday is ever complete without going on a big game safari, even if only for one night and two days. Sightings of hundreds elephant and even more buffalo during the two game drives, besides plenty of other game of course and dozens of bird species was reward enough for leaving the coastal resorts behind and venturing out to Tsavo East and then into the 28.000 acres private sanctuary in which the two Sarova lodges are located and from where I explored the Battlefield East Africa, the headline of an upcoming feature article on the World War 1 action seen in the Taita / Taveta area of Kenya.
I flew to Mombasa on the RwandAir nonstop service out of Kigali, having been in Rwanda for some other business but there are plenty of options reaching the Kenya coast by air from the entire region. RwandAirs business class service though offered a superior inflight experience with power sockets in the front cabin seats making even some work possible during the 1 ½ hour flight, and the crews smiles did put me in the right mood for my coastal adventure.